Homily for the Sunday of Forgiveness

Matthew 6:14-21

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen….Glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory forever!

          For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  This is how today’s Gospel reading in the Scriptures begins.  That word “for” implies what has gone on before in the chapter.  This passage explains it a bit.  The passages immediately preceding this one are of Jesus Christ teaching the Disciples the “Our Father.”  The “for” refers back to the line, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

          Notice that I kept the translation that we use in the Diocese of the South, debtors, even while this passage today says “trespasses.”   I do this because the Greek word in the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father” is not trespasses, but debts and debtors.  The word translated as trespasses in today’s passage is trespass or transgression, a misstep.  Does that mean that everyone else is “wrong” by using forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us?”  Not precisely, but debt is more accurate.  Using the word debt, though, in the Lord’s Prayer, illumines the word trespasses in today’s passage (and vice versa).

          I will ask you all to forgive me early on this Forgiveness Sunday, and to permit me to go into a little bit of a word study here….  If the word trespasses had been used in both places here instead of debts then the nature of our sins would have been expressed less precisely.  Instead by emphasizing debts in the “Our Father” and then saying, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you…” our Lord Jesus Christ shows us what our trespasses are.   In last week’s reading for the Sunday of the Last Judgment, Our Lord was even more explicit in delineating what our trespasses are: not feeding the poor, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned….which is counted then as a sin against the Lord Himself.  ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me,’ our Lord will say to the transgressors.

          The Gospel of St. Luke has these lines in the Lord’s Prayer as “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who are indebted to us.”  The relation of debts and trespasses is made directly within the prayer.  The image of debts forgiven and being equated with trespasses is also present in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.  The King forgives a servant a debt that could never be repaid in the man’s lifetime, but the same servant does not forgive a man who owes him just a trifling amount.  The Unmerciful Servant is then found out by the king and thrown into prison… “So my Heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”

          So, what is this debt we owe to God and our neighbor?  First of all it is obvious that we are indebted to God for everything we have, for our very existence.  We owe a debt of gratitude, of thanksgiving to Him.  God has given us so much, though, including sacrificing His own life by dying on the Cross, that it would be impossible for us to truly pay off this debt.  We find ourselves in the position of the Unmerciful servant whose debt is forgiven by the King.  This is why what God has done for us is called a gift, a grace.  There is another aspect of debt, though, and that is one of a duty.  If one looks up the Greek word used for debt, the translation that comes up includes a duty, a sense of what one ought to do (or not do as the case may be).  A debtor is one who has failed in his duty, who owes something.  Well, we see that we as humans cannot pay back what is owed to God for what He has given us, but we also see that a debt is a duty.  Is there anything that we can do that will fulfill our duty?  There are a few things that the Lord commands us to do, and they are all connected.

            He gives us a new commandment to love one another as He has loved us.  He tells us that we must forgive each other or we will not be forgiven, and He tells us that we must feed the hungry, clothe the naked and all the other things we heard last week.  If we fail in these things (and we so often do) we become debtors to God and to our fellow men.  Our debts become our trespasses.  We are called to forgive these debts as the Lord forgives us our debts.  The Lord forgives us our debts inasmuch as we have forgiven those indebted to us.  Archbishop Dmitri writes concerning both debts and trespasses and amplifies their meaning for us: 

The two amount to the same thing, but the emphases are different; ‘debts’ include anything neglected  in the treatment we owe our fellows, because they are made in the image of God –sins of omission; ‘trespasses’ are a kind of encroachment on another’s rights or an offense against him – sins of commission. (The Parables p. 33)

And so we pray for forgiveness of both our sins of omission and commission.  We must also forgive the debts others owe us and their transgressions against us as well.  This is crucial because we are told by the Lord that our own forgiveness is contingent on our forgiving others. He tells us this plainly and in parables.  St. John Chrysostom commenting on today’s Scripture writes:

So that the beginning[ that is, our forgiveness] is of us, and we ourselves have control over the judgment that is to be passed upon us.  For in order that no one, even of the senseless, might have any complaint to make, either great or small, when brought to judgment; [The Lord] causes the sentence to depend on you, who are to give account; and “in whatever way you have judged for  yourself, in the same,” He says, “do I also judge you.”

St. John points out as well, that the debt we owe to the Savior is much greater than that we owe to our fellow servant.  St. John points out that there is more to this forgiveness, though, and this is an important key to our Life in Christ.  The Lord could have forgiven us without our forgiving others.  However we benefit from forgiving others by growing in love and gentleness toward our fellow man.  Then again, we learned last week that our love and gentleness toward our fellow man results in showing love to the Lord.

          Metropolitan Jonah in one of his essays writes that when we hold onto anger or resentment or bitterness against those who have wronged us, “we erect barriers to God’s grace within us.”  He said at the Pastoral conference last month, the corollary of this, “To forgive is to drop the barriers to love.”  To forgive is not to justify the evil acts done to us.  Metropolitan Jonah also writes that “we will never have peace if we don’t forgive, …only resentment.”  To forgive is to see the perpetrator as a fellow human being who is in need of forgiveness just as we all are.  We do not justify the act, but we do see the person who has perpetrated it as being wounded himself.  By forgiving we do not hold onto resentments or anger that only perpetuates the wounding we received.  He recognizes that it is one of the hardest things that we can do.   It is also the most crucial thing we can do.  I mean that word, crucial, literally.  Sometimes to forgive will take a crucifixion of our will.  However, resurrection follows crucifixion.  We can rise out of our wounded selves to become a new creature in Christ. 

          When we love we come closer to God.  By loving we come closer to the realization of the likeness of God and become partakers of the Divine Energies of God.  This is our ultimate goal, to become a perfect mirror of God’s love.  This is what the saints were and are; radiant examples of those who showed us Christ in their words, their actions and their very being.  This is our legacy.  By forgiving others as God forgives us, we grow closer to God’s likeness; we become children of God and co-heirs with Christ. St. John Chrysostom writes: “…not by grace only, you see, ought we to become His children, but also by our works.  And nothing makes us so like God, as being ready to forgive the wicked and wrong-doers; even as indeed He had taught before, when He spoke of His ‘making the sun to shine on the evil and the good.’

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen….Glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory forever!





2009 Fr. Philip Kontos